Only six hours in, and already the mission is shaping up to be a total bust. Whole town buried in an avalanche, the relic responsible for the carnage in the wind, along with the halfling in its thrall, and just enough gerblin looters skulking around to give Merle, Magnus, and Taako a really hard time. They suffer a couple of fucking aggravating arrow wounds without the satisfaction of getting to fight something really cool, and the Bureau will pretty much have to start from scratch on the whole reclaiming front. All told, this day fucking blows.
"Shittiest adventure ever," Taako grumbles as Merle finishes patching him up. They’re sitting on and partly in the ruins of a cart in what used to be the main square of what used to be a pretty nice rustic border town. The kind they seem to be developing a knack for razing to rubble.
"Hey, we haven't died yet," the cleric points out, "I've always found that part pretty shitty."
"Not for lack of trying," Taako counters, shooting Magnus a pointed look. The fighter pretends not to see it, but beside him on the ground rest a grand total of three bloodied arrows. Merle heaves a slow sigh.
"Well, we're all gonna try a little harder for the rest of the day, because this here is my last spell slot, kiddos."
Taako snorts, and scratches a little dried blood from his lacy sleeve. "Not my fault you had to conjure down a half a dozen plagues to get the jump on a bunch of level two goonies with no armor class to speak of." Magnus guffaws in agreement at that. Merle scowls.
"Hey! It looked cool, didn't it?"
"Yeah, kinda, a little," Taako allows. "But next time maybe let cha boy get out of the way of the pillar of divine flame first, Captain Crossfire?"
The cleric ties off the bandage at Taako’s shoulder with a harder tug than is strictly necessary. "I was a little caught off guard when you made the first melee attack of your damn life--Taako?" He stops short, watching the elf's eyes go distant while one long ear twitches, and snaps his wooden fingers, which crackle like dry kindling. "Earth to Taako, buddy."
"What is is?" Magnus asks, rising to his feet with railsplitter at the ready.
The wizard cranes his head to the side, triangulating. "Do you guys hear that?" he asks. "Kind of a weird...yelly sort of--" He stops abruptly, face closing off for a moment before a faux-neutral expression pops back in its place. "Hah. Nevermind, guys. Just the wind. No big deal after all, false alarm, guess we can pack up and head home--"
"No, wait, I hear it too," says Magnus, cupping a callused, meaty hand around one ear. "Almost sounds like..." he trails off, taking one tentative step before breaking into a run, charging into the distance until Merle's eyes lose him in the smoke.
"Aww, dag," Taako bemoans, scooping up the umbrastaff. "Fucking Magnus rushes in," he mutters, trailing just a step and a half behind Merle as they pick their way through broken beams and twisted metal.
When they reach the open doorway, Magnus is standing stock-still in the center of the room, his big broad shoulders blocking Merle’s view of whatever the fighter is staring at. The dwarf settles his glasses down on his nose and cranes around his comrade to look, but he can hear the familiar wailing already. He can hazard a very confident guess at what--who it is they’ve found.
“Oh, fucking hell,” Taako simmers from beyond the threshold, where he waits, hands clasping and unclasping the handle of his umbrella. “Magnus, my man. Please. We’re not doing this.”
“Doing what? I’m not doing anything,” Magnus deflects, as he leans down and picks up the little squalling bundle with a careful tenderness Merle has only seen him use while carving. He turns back to them, and for the first time Merle can see how utterly frail and breakable the kid looks, cradled in the fighter’s massive, scar-covered arms.
“Oh,” Merle says, without really meaning to. It feels like something has gotten caught in his throat. He can remember that feeling, though it’s been years since he last felt it so strongly. Mookie’s tiny, wrinkled prune face, the thatch of bright red hair on top of his big, round head. It feels like the sun is rising in the pit of his stomach.
The baby can’t be more than six months old, though translated into dark elf terms Merle isn’t quite sure. She hasn’t even begun to grow into her ears, which flank her chubby face like wings. Her eyes are big and bright as she stares quizzically up at Magnus, deciding whether or not to keep crying. “Hey, there,” he says encouragingly, barely above a whisper. Merle wants to run away but he can’t move his feet. Taako scoffs.
“Put it down, for fuck’s sake! It probably has a family! Actual real parents! What happens if they waltz in here and see you prancing around with their little bundle of joy like you want to take it home?”
“She doesn’t,” Magnus objects, his eyes going hard for a second.
“Yeah? How do you know, Mr. Big Shot?” The baby finally turns her attention to the elf in the doorway, and starts to cry again.
“Shhhh!” Magnus hisses to Taako, then, softer, to the kid. “Shh, it’s okay, honey. It’s gonna be okay.” Merle nudges the elf with his elbow and gestures behind Magnus, where he can see the corpses of two women, a human and a dark elf, slumped against the cradle like sentinels. Taako very nearly has the grace to look ashamed of himself.
“We can’t do this,” he says, a little softer this time.
Magnus ignores him, trying simultaneously to rock the baby and let it gum at the knuckles of his right hand.
“We can’t just leave her,” Merle’s a little shocked to hear himself say, and Magnus straightens up to glare daggers at Taako.
“You heard her,” he accuses. “You knew she was here and you wanted us to just pack up and leave her to die?”
Taako glares right back, brandishing his umbrastaff. “I wanted us to stay away from shit that’s out of our depth,” he snaps. “I don’t do kids, and I sure as hell don’t think you two are cut out for it, either. We’re not the parenting type.”
He’s right, as much as it stings Merle to hear it. He clenches his jaw and tries not to think about Mavis and Mookie, not being there for them.
Magnus goes bright red, cradling the dark elf baby closer to his chest protectively. “What do you mean, I’m not cut out for it?”
Taako laughs a very ugly laugh. “Look at you! Magnus, my dude, you were so close to dying fifteen minutes ago that I had a half a speech planned for the rites of remembrance! You more than any of us, you live out on the fuckin’ cliff’s edge!” He stalks into the room at last, picking his way over the shattered window glass dexterously and levelling one long, manicured finger at the fighter. “You act like it’s so merciful of us, picking this kid up and dragging her along with us when the reality is in a week or a month or a year we’ll all be lying dead in a ditch somewhere and then she’s right back where she started.” Taako’s vibrating all over while he talks, so incensed that little specks of involuntary magic start to spark off his skin, and Merle ducks in between he and Magnus to push them apart before they jump at one another’s throats.
“Fellas, please--” he starts.
“You can’t just jump in and say you’re gonna be this kid’s new dad when you can’t even watch out for yourself,” Taako says, blistering, ears flattened back against his head.
Magnus stares him down for a long minute, while Merle looks between them and wishes he’d thought to save a spell slot for something like this. A little zone of truth wouldn’t go amiss right now, he wishes. Then the kid reaches one fat-fingered hand out to Merle’s outstretched wooden one and wrenches off a leaf that had sprouted from his pinky. “Ow! Little rascal,” the cleric curses, pulling his hand away.
After a moment, though, he offers the arm again. The dark elf baby latches on to it with a surprising strength and starts nibbling on the bark of his fingernails. Merle tries to hold back a giggle, then looks up to see the other two staring at him. “What? S’pretty cute,” he says, gruffly.
“I can’t,” Magnus says, voice rough. “I know you’re right, but I can’t just leave her here like this, okay?”
Taako stares at the baby as she chews on Merle’s finger, a little transfixed. “Yeah.”
Merle looks at the round little fingers wrapping around his own and can’t bring himself to make the right choice. “What if we take her back to the base, just for the interim,” he offers. “Just. Just until she finds someplace to stay.” Magnus’ face lights up, and he looks up at Taako pleadingly. Two against one. Merle wishes he could play fair, but the kid’s literally twisting his arm, okay? “Just a temporary thing,” he assures. “We don’t even have to name her.”
“No, we’re gonna name her,” Magnus interrupts.
Taako stares the three of them down for a long time, impassive, then shrugs and reaches for his bracer with a sigh. “Oh, what the hell,” he says. “Fine! You win.”
“Pan, I hope Lucretia isn’t too bothered by this,” Merle mutters, watching drool drip off the ends of his fingers.
The Director stares them down with a face like cold steel. “Tell me you at least retrieved the relic.”
Taako looks from Magnus’ stubborn, utterly non-intimidating pout to Merle’s guiltily shifting feet and back, then examines the ceiling dome for any and all interesting new additions since the last time he’d looked at it, yesterday. The baby, who Merle has insisted they refer to exclusively as ‘Baby’, hiccups.
After a painfully long minute with no answer in sight, she very gently lowers her head into her hands and groans. “I don’t have to tell you that she’s your responsibility, I hope?”
“Our--” Taako blurts, glaring at Magnus. “No. No fucking way, I want it on the record that I was against this whole--”
“Of course, Director,” Magnus interrupts. “We understand.”
“It’s just temporary,” Merle clarifies. Nobody acknowledges him.
She stays in Magnus’ rooms, because everything Merle has ever touched smells like weed and if they leave Baby with Taako she’ll disappear in a pile of empty cheetos bags and dirty laundry and they’ll never see her again. Also, Taako threatened to throw her off the moon personally if his beauty sleep was going to be affected.
“Elves don’t even have to sleep,” Magnus accuses.
“Yeah, and elves don’t usually have to play wet nurse to random orphans, either,” he shoots right back, twitching one finger toward the mage-hand currently shaking the formula bottle. Baby stares at the glowing spectral hand in wonder, then blows a spit bubble.
Anyway. Point is, Magnus is ground zero baby zone. Merle helps him lock all weapons and assorted items with sharp edges down in the pocket workshop, then struggles along with him to put together the incomprehensibly awful assemble-it-yourself crib they found at the back of the Fantasy Costco. Magnus glares at the thing from toe to tip when it’s done, shaking the inexplicable extra leg at it menacingly. “I don’t trust it. I’m skipping training with Carey tomorrow and building one myself.”
Merle and Taako just sigh, and leave him to it.
The thing is, Merle tries his damn hardest not to get attached, but at the end of the day he’s the only one out of the three of them with any idea how to handle a baby. “She won’t go to sleep,” Magnus pleads, the moonlight streaming in behind him through the open door. Baby’s resting against his shoulder, one hand tangled in the curl of his sideburns, babbling away incoherently.
“Course not,” he mumbles, shuffling into his slippers. “You let her sleep all day. Give her over,” he says gruffly, reaching up to take Baby from Magnus’ broad arms. He hesitates, staring down at Merle with his eyebrows drawn together. “Come on, Mag, I won’t drop her, I promise.”
“I never said you would,” Magnus says, but while he hands Baby over he stands a little too stiffly, watching Merle close.
Curious little tyke looks around in wonder for a moment, and goes right to chewing on the bottom of Merle’s beard. He laughs, and bounces her in his arms, watching her half-elf ears twitch. She’s not as heavy as Mavis was, but heavier than Mookie. What reminds him more of his youngest is the thick swath of dark hair curling out from her scalp, though of course most dwarf babies have a little hair on their chin by this age. “Look at you, darling,” he coos, forgetting the fighter standing a foot away. “I think you got some real chompers coming in.”
“You, uh…” Magnus is staring at him. “You’ve done this before, huh?”
Heat rises in Merle’s cheeks. “Not for a while,” he explains, hurriedly, then backtracks. “I mean. Yeah, it’s been a few years since I--” He gestures to Baby, mostly by lifting her a couple inches, then settling her down against his chest again. “My, uh. My youngest just turned ten last summer. Almost as tall as me now.” It’s harder to talk about his kids than he thought it would be. He’s damn proud of them, but…well, he’s not exactly proud about leaving them behind. Not that he was doing the two of them much good, sticking around to fight with Hekuba day in and day out, smoking a pack a day and dreaming every waking moment about getting out.
“Oh.” Magnus’ voice is carefully blank. “Sorry, I just. I didn’t know you had kids.”
“Yeah,” Merle agrees, can’t think of how to explain it, so he just keeps bouncing Baby in the half-light. Out of the corner of his eye he catches a glimpse of the clock, and has to shake his head. “Tell you what, Mag, why don’t you get some shut-eye? I can handle her until she nods off.”
He looks beat. “If you’re sure,” he says, like he’s half expecting Merle will take it back. Like he half wants Merle to take it back.
“I’m sure,” Merle says, firmly. “Go on, you need your rest, big guy.”
It takes Magnus a long moment to turn and shuffle back to his room, but it’s only a few minutes after that Merle hears the sound of his snores start to whistle back out into the common room, shaking the tea set Taako left in the middle of the coffee table. Merle takes a tentative seat on the couch, Baby lying across his chest and prodding his face with her chubby little fingers.
She’s burning out the last of her burst of energy, but it doesn’t seem like she’s going to fall asleep all on her own. Merle looks down at her, biting his lip, then harrumphs. “You’re a regular night owl, aren’t you, little lady?”
She blows a spit bubble at him.
Time was, Merle had memorized the whole songbook of dwarven nursery rhymes. Knew every verse off by heart, could even whistle a few of the catchier tunes. These days, he’s down to maybe one or two.
Problem is, it’s the lullaby he used to sing for Mookie when the thunderstorms made the sea churn outside their window. Singing it now is going to bring up associations, he just knows it, and then he won’t be able to keep lying to himself and saying he won’t be torn up when this kid finds a real home.
Baby starts to gurgle, and Merle clears his throat. It’s a matter of necessity, he decides.
He’s pretty rusty, stumbles a little over the words, forgets a line here or there, and his voice crackles from disuse, but it gets the job done. Those wide, dark eyes drift shut, and Baby slumps over his chest, drooling into the fabric of his nightshirt.
And, well, Merle figures if he stands up now it’ll only wake her up. So really, he’s got no choice but to stay put like that the rest of the night. It’s practically morning, anyway.
Taako’s the first one to wander out of his rooms, a few hours later, making a beeline for the kitchen to mix up his usual breakfast of frosted flakes with orange juice. He shoots Merle a look that the cleric can’t decipher on his way past the couch, ears flicking backwards.